The Average Cost Of A Vacation Probably Is Cheaper Than You Think — That Is, If You Know Where To Look
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In today’s economy and work culture (or work-yourself-to-the-bone culture, as the case may be), it often feels like there’s a catch-22 surrounding vacations: Either you’ve got enough time to travel, but no money to do so, or you’ve got enough money to travel, but no time to do so. The latest data on how much the average vacation costs, though, might turn that whole idea on its head. Personal finance site ValuePenguin crunched some numbers from the Consumer Expenditure Survey reporting how much Americans spend taking vacations annually, and the results are pretty eye-opening — although perhaps for some unexpected reasons.

According to ValuePenguin, vacation spending amounts to roughly two percent of the household budget for most people in the United States each year. There is, however, a pretty sharp divide in how each household handles it — as ValuePenguin describes it, “It’s a tale of two Americas: those who hardly spend a night away from home; and those who drop an average of $4,7000 on vacations each year.” What’s more, exactly what those numbers are and where you’re using the money to go tend to depend a good deal on where you’re at in life — the under-25 set, families, and retirees all have dramatically different travel and spending habits.

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That said, though, if you average the numbers out, you can get a pretty decent ballpark price not just for how much a vacation might cost in total, but also how exactly the expenditures are divided. According to ValuePenguin, here’s what the numbers look like for a four-night domestic trip in the United States:

  • Transportation: $224
  • Lodging: $150
  • Food/alcohol: $155
  • Entertainment: $52
  • Total: $581
  • Cost per day: $144

And here’s what they look like for a 12-night international trip:

  • Transportation: $1,755
  • Lodging: $683
  • Food/alcohol: $520
  • Entertainment: $293
  • Total: $3,251
  • Cost per day: $271

If you find yourself looking at those dollar amounts and thinking, “Gee, they look awfully low” — or, alternatively, “How the heck are people managing to find 12 nights’ accommodation abroad for a mere $683?!?!?!” — then you’re not the only one; Mic also drew attention to the seemingly improbably affordable costs of a getaway. (For what it's worth, I definitely fell into the “?!?!?!” camp.) But it’s possible that these numbers are so low because they’ve been skewed somewhat by outliers.

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When I say that these dollar amounts are the average costs Americans spend on vacation, I do mean average — meaning that the numbers crunched to find that average include those incurred by people who are really, really good at traveling on the cheap. As ValuePenguin puts it, “Of course, not all vacationers incurred each expense. For example, someone who stayed with friends on vacation would have a $0 cost for their lodging.”

But! That’s actually good news for all of us: It’s a solid reminder that it is possible to travel affordably — and, in fact, that it’s more than possible to do so. It might mean going off the beaten path a little, or putting in some extra effort to find the best deals; in the end, though, it’ll likely be worth it. These tips and tricks might give you a good place to start:

1Think Outside The Box For Accommodations

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There are more options out there than hotels, motels, bed and breakfasts, and Airbnb rentals; you just have to dig a little deeper for them. I credit Matt Gross, who was the New York Times’ Frugal Traveler during the mid-2000s, with bringing some of these alternatives to my attention; during his American Road Trip, which he chronicled from the road during the summer of 2007, he stayed at intentional communities, couch surfed (Couchsurfing.com was only a few years old at that point), and found all sorts of unusual places to crash that also ended up being a lot more memorable than your average hotel room. To my young adult self, it was mind-blowing to read about — and phenomenally inspiring for the budding globetrotter in me, as well.

While it’s true that the resources in the Frugal Road Trip —and those addressed during the Around the World in 90 Days trip Gross took the previous year — are about 10 years out of date now (I’m certainly not getting any younger), the tips are often still solid. Wherever you’re planning on going, take a look for alternative accommodations: Are there safe couchsurfing options? Can you, say, get room and board on a working farm in exchange for a day’s work? And, of course, do you know anyone or have any friends of friends who might be willing to let you crash at their place if you make them a meal or two while you’re there? The more creative you can get, the better.

2Take Charge Of Your Meals

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Yes, good restaurants are one of the best parts of a vacation, and no, not all restaurants have to cost a proverbial arm and a leg. But — and I realize it’s an oft-repeated pointer, although I think it’s always good to keep in mind — you’ll be able to cut costs enormously if you don’t rely on restaurants for every meal. Are you staying somewhere with a kitchen? Awesome — cook your meals yourself. You can still take advantage of the specialties of the area; check markets for ingredients that are typical of where you’re staying or which might be harder to find at home. And if you’re out all day, you might think about popping into a market or grocery store for lunch; traveling in Spain when I was in college, my travel buddy and I found a market and munched on Spanish cheese, fresh bread, and fruit for lunch pretty much every day, and it was spectacular.

That’s not to say that restaurants aren’t an option, either; there are plenty of ways to keep costs down on that front, as well. Travel site Extra Pack of Peanuts has some excellent suggestions, including avoiding hotel restaurants (they’re usually more expensive than they’re worth), heading out of the tourist areas (ditto), and finding spots in college or university areas (no one does budget eating like a university student).

3Find Awesome, Free (Or Cheap) Things To Do

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Are you in a country where the museums are government-funded and therefore free to visit? Find a cool one that interests you and get lost in the exhibits. Are there markets to explore? Spend a day looking for the most unusual things you can find at them. Is nature easily accessible? Go on a hike.Are there any festivals or parades happening? Check ‘em out. In the age of the internet, Googling “free things to do in…”, followed by whatever your travel locale is, will yield an almost endless array of ideas. Yes, sometimes a splurge for a truly out-of-this-world experience is worth it — but there’s plenty of fun to be had for little or no money, too.

For more details about how the average American spends their vacation budget, head to ValuePenguin. Happy traveling!